WASHINGTON -- Years ago, it was Elvis' pelvis and the Beatles' hair that had parents concerned. Today, the big fear is rock lyrics that deal explicitly with sex, drugs, alcohol, violence and the occult.
Two organizations, one of them comprised of well-connected Washington wives, have set out to relieve the concern by demanding that records and tapes carry warning labels if they include songs judged to be objectionable.
'There's no other consumer product where you have to buy it before you find it's objectionable to you,' said Ann Kahn, president of the National Parent Teachers Association, one ofthe groups pushing for the labels.
That effort, however, does not strike a chord with some in the music industry who believe the groups are engaged in nothing more than censorship.
'First of all, I don't disagree with the protection of children. This patently will not protect children. The net result is censorship,' says rock musician Frank Zappa. 'If you think rock 'n' roll is ugly ... nobody is making you buy it.'
The debate moves to Congress Thursday when the Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on so-called 'porn rock.' No legislation is pending or currently contemplated.
Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., a member of the Commerce Committee, says she became aware of the nature of some rock lyrics after buying Prince's smash-hit 'Purple Rain' album for her daughter, then 11.
'She liked it. I liked it and I didn't know anything about Prince. We listened to it in the living room,' she said. 'Then we got to 'Darling Nikki ....'
The song includes the lyrics: 'I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend. I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.'
'I began to wonder what was going on,' said Gore, 37, the mother of four.
She later shared her feelings with her friend Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, who, it turned out, had had a similar experience with her daughter.
Last spring, the two women and others started the Parents Music Resource Center, joining the National PTA in its effort to label offensive music.
Among the songs that have drawn the PMRC's ire are Judas Priest's 'Eat Me Alive,' about oral sex, Motley Crue's 'Live Wire,' about sex and violence, and Prince's 'Sister,' about incest.
Although their demands have differed somewhat, the PMRC and PTA recently joined forces on three points. First they want an 'R' label on records and tapes with lyrics that include explicit sexual language, violence, profanity or that deal with the occult or glorify drugs or alcohol.
They want a record industry panel to set the standards for determining what records need to be labeled and then want the individual record companies to make the decisions based on that standard.
Finally, they want the lyrics of all labeled records available to the consumer before they buy a record or a tape.
Thus far, 24 companies representing more than 80 percent of record and tape sales nationally have agreed to use a warning label that reads 'Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics.'
The decision to use the label, however, is left up to the standards of the individual company. A spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America, which developed the label, says the group intends to go no further.
'We've done what we're going to do. The industry has made a responsible move. Parental Guidance is what they asked for,' said Trish Heimers, the RIAA's director of public relations.
'They asked for a tool. We have given them that tool. 'R' stands for restricted and there will be no restrictions,' Heimers said.
But Gore complains that a 'PG' label 'connotes mildness.'
Heimers also says the demand for making lyrics available does not account for the logistical realities of the music industry. Lyrics are sometimes changed at the last minute and in many cases record companies don't own the rights to the lyrics.
Zappa, scheduled to testify on the Senate hearing, takes a more hard-line view.
He claims the RIAA and the companies have agreed to the 'PG' label because major legislation on home taping, a bill the industry wants, is pending on Capitol Hill.
'It's extortion pure and simple,' says Zappa, who accused some PMRC members of being 'very arrogant about what their husbands can do to an entire industry.'
Heimers acknowledges that the industry was aware of the connections of the PMRC members but says those members have not used their access as a bullying tactic in the labeling debate.
'We did not act out of fear,' Heimers said.
Underlying the whole debate is the issue of censorship.
Zappa says he's heard one major record retail chain has been told it may lose its leases if it stocks labeled records. He also says he's been told a large retail chain has told a major record company it won't stock labeled music.
Kahn and Gore deny that censorship is their intent.
'Raping and killing a woman. If they want to have this in a song, they can,' said Gore. 'All the consumer is asking is a label on the outside of the album. What we're talking about, in view of the excesses, is very, very mild.'